The Japanese car manufacturer Nissan and cutting edge technology specialists NASA are working together to advance the technology behind cars that drive autonomously. NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, California and Yokohama-based Nissan Motor Co. announced on Thursday of this week, a research-and-development partnership for autonomous vehicle systems that will span five-years. The idea is that the technologies will eventually be implemented into commercially sold vehicles.

Nissan said in a joint statement that NASA researchers will be working with Nissan’s research unit in Silicon Valley. Nissan is the maker of the Leaf electric car and Infiniti luxury model vehicle and they are aiming to introduce autonomous driving technology to the consumer market between 2016 and 2020. It was NASA’s Ames Research Center at Moffett Field that developed, amongst other things, the Mars rover software and robots onboard the International Space Station.

Nissan Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn said, ”The partnership brings together the best and brightest of NASA and Nissan and validates our investments in Silicon Valley.” It is pretty obvious that Nissan is very excited about the future potential of autonomous cars, as executives say it could lead to improved safety, along with low emission technology.

Autonomous vehicles are better drivers than we are. A computer will not be distracted by a cell phone or become tired from driving for long periods of time. So the safety aspect of autonomous vehicles is one of the driving forces behind the project. The cars will know, through sensors, that they are about to have a collision and will brake automatically, even if the driver doesn’t do a thing. The cars will also be able to park themselves.

Car makers other than Nissan are also working on the technology, including rival car maker Toyota Motor Corp. and U.S. manufacturers General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co.In fact, driverless cars was the topic of a keynote address by Ford Chief Executive Mark Fields at the International CES show in Las Vegas earlier this week.

Who knows? In the future, the technology could even replace human drivers altogether, although there are many obstacles still to overcome, before the cars mass produced into mainstream society.

[Image via gas2]